Turkey: the biggest prison in the world for journalists

“Turkey is again the world’s biggest prison for professional journalists, with members of the press spending more than a year in prison before trial and long jail sentences becoming the new norm—in some cases, journalists are sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of a pardon.”

Reporter Without Borders, World Press Freedom Index 2018

“The witch hunt waged by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government against its media critics has come to a head since an abortive coup in July 2016. A state of emergency has allowed the authorities to eliminate dozens of media outlets with the stroke of a pen, reducing pluralism to a handful of low-circulated and targeted publications,” Reporters Without Borders said.

In the first four months after the coup, 130 journalists, media workers and writers were arrested, of whom 64 were subsequently released. In more than one occasion since 2016, resolutions of the European Parliament noted that detained journalists had been “denied the right of access to a lawyer” and were “being kept in inhumane conditions in which they are being threatened and mistreated”. In addition, the closure of more than 100 media outlets and companies left over 3,000 journalists unemployed, the Media Freedom Trends report 2018 of the European Parliament stated.

The International Press Institute (IPI) reported that Turkey has made no progress toward restoring press freedom after ending emergency rule in July 2018. The Turkish government has – through the forced closure of over 170 media outlets and printing houses and a combination of market distortion, economic pressure and friendly media ownership – brought an estimated 95 percent of the country’s media under its influence. The vast majority of Turkey’s jailed journalists are charged with terrorism-related offenses for which prosecutors routinely produce only journalists’ critical articles and social media activity as “evidence,” the report by IPI stated.

The purges against journalists have not finished in 2019: “in January, investigative journalist Pelin Ünker was sentenced to prison for defamation against former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and his sons for exposing their links to offshore companies in Malta as part of the Panama Papers investigation. Ünker faces several other pending cases. On February 5, Kurdish journalist Nedim Türfent spent his 1,000th day in prison in a trial marred by outrageous violations of Türfent’s right to a fair trial and devoid of any credible evidence to support the charges against him,” the IPI monitor group concluded.

The clampdown of free speech hasn’t touched only the media. Since July 2016’s failed coup, Erdogan’s government has “openly restricted freedoms throughout society, including the freedom of religion. By trying to transform Turkey from a secular state into a Sunni Muslim one,” NGO Open Doors states.

Leaving Islam is considered a betrayal of Turkish identity because the general opinion is that a true Turk must be a Sunni Muslim. Although conversion from Islam to Christianity is not legally forbidden, converted Christians face increasing pressure from their families and communities to return to Islam, Open Doors reports.

As a result, Christians sometimes lead a double life and hide their conversion. In October 2018, U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson was released from arrest after almost two years of imprisonment and four hearings. He was charged with terrorism and espionage and in the indictment was accused of “Christianization,” deemed a “hostile act.”

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